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History of Wine II: The Birth of Bacchus, Roman God of Wine

Written by Tynan Szvetecz
Filed Under: Wine History

Wine Becomes Part of the People:

The concept of evolution, though easily understood, carries with it an interesting enigma. Do evolutionary events happen gradually, over time, or are there sudden evolutionary leaps that are brought on by the convergence of a series of seemingly unrelated events? If we relate evolution to how it seems to unfold in our own lives, we would probably say there are elements of both: surely we grow as individuals gradually as our experiences compile, and certainly there are times in our lives when something big happens that propels us to new heights. For some, a leap of this nature can change the course of life entirely, and sometimes even the course of history. The evolution of wine experienced just such a leap when a few brave Egyptian sailors decided to trade the art of wine making for a few clay jars on the isle of Crete around 2500 B.C.

Prior to this fateful expansion in Mediterranean trade, the art of wine making belonged to the Egyptians. Making due with a poor growing climate, Egyptian wine was frail and could not be made in large enough quantities for the masses. It was a delicacy of the Pharaoh, and the Gods.

Everything changed for wine when it landed in the hands of the Greeks. This single event in the evolution of wine, more than any other, would define its role on Earth for the next four thousand years. It was in Greece - and by extension Rome, that wine would become a drink of the people and begin a spontaneous and rapid expansion throughout the world.

Having been passed the torch of wine growing, the Greeks didn't miss a beat. They improved on literally every aspect of the wine making process, not the least of which was changing the way vines were grown. Previously, in both Mesopotamian and ancient Egyptian traditions, vines were wrapped around trees and the grapes harvested accordingly. The Greeks introduced trellises and stakes so the grapes could not only be harvested easier, but also planted in more places. The result of this act alone allowed for the birth of the vineyard and the spread of vine growing practices throughout Greece and the area that is now southern Italy. The discovery of the ancient Italian climate and its ultimate friendliness toward grape growing was so remarkable for the Greeks that they came to call it Oenotria, or the land of trained vines. Before long, Dionysus, the Greek God of wine, was roaming freely through the country side.

The Legacy of Bacchus

For the Romans, Dionysus became Bacchus, the son of Jupiter and Semele. He represented not only the intoxicating power of wine, but also its social and beneficent influences. A reflection on Greco and Roman philosophies regarding democratic government, Bacchus was a promoter of civilization, a lawgiver and peacemaker. Wine, it seems, began to come into its own.

The Roman Empire, though infinitely fallible, was not one to deprive its citizens of their favorite God. From 300 B.C. to the beginning of the Christian era, the population in Rome exploded from 100,000 people to over one million. The result was an equally sizeable increase in the demand for affordable wine, and Rome absorbed some 1.8 million hectoliters of wine per year. That was enough for every man, woman and child to have half a liter per day, every day of the year.

The task of satiating the people's demand for wine was not made any easier by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. which buried one of the empire's primary wine-shipping ports, Pompeii, in ash. Two entire vintages were lost, and the inevitable rush to fill the gap in wine production resulted in a further boom of vineyard expansion. The market became so oversaturated that just 13 years after the eruption, the Roman emperor had to halt new plantings in Italy and destroy half the vineyards in Rome's oversea provinces.

However, it was because of this boom that the first vines were planted in Gaul near Provence and Languedoc. It wasn't long before the vines made their way to Bordeaux and Burgundy, and by the third century A.D., Alsace.

From the great vineyards of Italy to Bordeaux, Burgundy and Alsace, Bacchus had single-handedly planted the first vines in what would become the world's most legendary wine regions. To underscore the influence of this amazing evolutionary leap in wine making, the techniques used to make the earliest Languedoc wine in the first century A.D. would not change until the 1970's.

And now, it seems, we have been blessed to be a part of the next great evolutionary leap in the history of wine. The new world has risen to the challenge set forth by the old world, and as the two collide, we find ourselves nodding our heads in wonder as we know that wine will never be the same again. Bacchus can't help but throw out a wink.